Saturday, November 10, 2007

Using Praise as a Correction

In the interest of building an easily-referenced library of dog training tips, here is another article previously posted on the Amazon blog. By the way, in reviewing this before posting it, I realize it may be one of the most profound things I’ve ever written about dogs. Enjoy!

Using Praise to Correct Bad Behavior:
Freddie and the Chicken Breast
My Dalmatian Freddie and I were in Central Park one day when he was a little over a year old, and he found a discarded chicken breast near a park bench. What a treasure! As soon as he saw it, he ran over, took it in his mouth, then looked over at where I stood, about twenty yards away, and dug his paws in, getting ready to run off with it.
At the time I had developed the idea that everything the training books say is wrong, and I was experimenting with my hypothesis by randomly doing the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do in any given training situation, just to see what would happen. As Fred got ready to run away with his prize I thought, “I should probably tell him no or correct him in some way. What would the totally opposite, wrong thing be?” 

The answer came back, praise him. So I said, “Good boy! What a good boy!” in an excited, highly emotionally charged voice.
Freddie, without knowing what he was doing or thinking about it, immediately dropped his treasure and came running back to me, wagging his tail, and smiling. (Dalmatians do smile.) 

I praised him even more, picked up a stick, teased him with it, then had him chase me to get it. We played a little tug-of-war, with Freddie on his back legs, and his front paws braced against my body. Then I used the stick to heel him past the chicken breast. I did it three or four times in a row. Then I had him sit right in front of it, took a few steps back, and said, “Freddie, come!” and he came to me and we ran off, playing. 

Accentuate the Positive
I thought this over, wondering why it had worked, and the only thing I could come up with was that I’d interrupted Freddie’s flow of feelings. He wanted to run off with his lovely, tasty chicken breast and make a meal of it. All my praise did, in this way of looking at things, was interrupt his behavior, his desired expectation, and his flow of feelings. 

As I thought it over even more I realized that whether you correct the dog or praise him, all you’re really doing is interrupting his behavior and/or his flow of feelings. Both methods stop the behavior as it’s happening, but corrections carry an unfavorable association towards whomever is doing the correcting. On the other hand praise carries only positive associations. So the question is, would you rather have your dog see you as a positive or negative?

A few months earlier I'd been intrigued by a study done at Harvard, which showed that the human brain is designed to be unhappy, or at least not to be happy for very long. This has to do with how dopamine and serotonin levels always go down after they spike, and is similar to the effects of an addict's high, and how his substance of choice tends to lose its effectiveness the more it’s used. Another way of looking at it is the new toy at Christmas phenomenon. Man, on Christmas morning that new toy is the most wonderful thing in the world, but two weeks later it’s old hat. The Harvard researchers’ theory was that the brain is designed to not allow us to be happy for very long so we'll continue to do things, to achieve new levels of civilization, or to just get up in the morning.

I wondered if a dog’s brain worked the same way, and it occurred to me that whenever a dog (or wolf) leaves the den, his hunting instinct immediately kicks in. This means that there’s some level of dissatisfaction going on in the dog’s emotional system; some internal mechanism is telling him he’s not going feel better until he finds some way to use his prey drive, whether it’s meeting another dog to hook up with and play/hunt with, or to find a squirrel to chase, etc.
If this is true, then when Freddie found the chicken breast, he was thinking, “I’ve found it! This is what will fill that empty feeling inside!” He wasn't really hungry. He’d eaten a good breakfast. He was simply looking for some way to satisfy his hunting instincts. (By the way, if you think about it scavenging is a very economical way for a dog to hunt: you go directly from search to eat, with no need to stalk, chase, grab, and kill your prey. . .)

Then, when I praised Fred, flooding him with positive emotions, which came from a person who was the most important focal point of his life, it was even more emotionally fulfilling for him than finding the chicken breast had been.

Going back to the underlying mechanism, here’s how praise works: a dog sees a piece of food. He goes after it with the expectation of achieving satisfaction. If he’s interrupted, both his desire and his expectation of achieving satisfaction are thwarted. Since interrupting him by saying “No!” drags negative associations with whomever is saying it into the equation, the food object is rarely seen as the primary negative. Neither is the dog’s behavior. In the dog’s experience 

the handler is perceived as the primary negative
because the handler is an obstacle to the dog’s desire. 

Saying “No!” is an impure correction because the negative experience of being interrupted is directly attributable to the person saying “No!” not to the behavior itself.  On the other hand, when you use praise, the negative experience of being interrupted can’t be attributed to the handler, only the the thing the dog desires at that moment is perceived as negative. When you use praise as a correction 

the handler is perceived as the primary positive
because the handler is the solution to the dog’s desire. 

When Freddie found that chicken breast his social instincts became polarized toward resistance. The food was more important to him than his need to feel connected to me at that moment. But by praising him, I instantly reversed the polarity of his emotions from social resistance to social attraction. He lost his feelings of attraction to the food. Or rather, my praise changed his feelings of attraction for the food into feelings of attraction to me. In other words I changed his emotional state, and 

when you change a dog’s emotional state,
you automatically change his behavior. 

After the chicken breast incident I spent the next few days praising Fred—who’d previously been a bit of a problem scavenger—whenever he found something on the street. In three or four days his scavenging totally disappeared. All because I’d pigheadedly done the exact opposite of what the dog training books (and common sense) would say to do.

I began using a similar technique on other dogs with scavenging problems, and found that it always works to some degree, depending on how emotionally attached the dog is to its owner.

You have to remember that when a dog goes after something on the street it’s not necessarily because he’s hungry, but because he has an inner feeling of tension that needs to be resolved. (MRI research shows that even while the brain is in the conscious resting state known as “default mode,” there is always a certain amount of background tension present.) He may have no real desire to eat a pizza crust, just a general sense of dissatisfaction. (Remember, many dogs will often scavenge after eating a full meal, so they don’t do it out of hunger.) 

When you praise a dog, you give him a feeling of connectedness which overcomes his need for the food object. When you correct the dog, you may be successful at getting him to leave the object alone at that moment, but you do so by leaving him with an unfulfilled desire, a desire which has to then find its expression through another outlet. 

Ultimately it’s a matter of attraction and resistance. Praise makes a dog feel more attracted to you than he does to the food object. Scolding, even though it seems successful and seems to make sense, actually makes a dog feel more attracted to the food object!

However, this technique only works when the praise reverses the dog’s emotional polarity. When the dog is too wound up, it does no good to praise him. You have to use praise before things get ratcheted up.

So remember: this isn’t a cure-all; it’s just a helpful tool.  

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

(By the way, this article is part of a blog carnival, which will be available for viewing as of Monday, November 12, 2007.)


Ben said...

what a great, great post. between you and neil i have too much stuff to go over and try :)

ben & indy

LCK said...

Hey, Ben. Thanks for the kudos!


summerinbrooklyn said...

Hey Lee,

I really have to ratchet up my praise for Summer... Maybe you can help with an idea. I always praise her especially when she's done something amazing, and I've gotten it in my head that I should sort of tailor it to the exercise at hand. For example, when I taught her how to jump the hurdles, the first few complete jumps she made on her own I really went to town, jumping and squealing in excitement, patting her side heartily, running off with her at my side - you get the idea. And then when we do a strict Heel and she snaps her head to look at me, I sustain her gaze by praising her in a low smooth deep voice, gooooooooood girl, lots of cooing in a soft voice.

But there are moments when no praise in the world will get her attention, and the ONLY thing that will snap her back to earth is either a leash correction or the keys chucked in the direction of her focus (so that the shock will snap her drive down and I can immediately redirect it back to me by calling her and praising her). So is it bad that I AM workign with corrections? I've also used the word NO to indicate "Stop What You Are Doing Now and Return Your Attention To Me." Should I be using a different word instead? The reason I went with NO is because I know there is going to be an instance when I need to get her attention IMMEDIATELY, and if it's something dangerous, my mind will likely go blank, and the first word that will come to mind will probably be NO!!!!!

Summer is so atypical though... Sometimes I think she doesn't hear me at all when I praise her..... And yet, when she sees something she really is attracted to (like her best friends) I have actually been able to get her attention so I can ask for a strict Heel and Look before I release her to go play with them. It's when she is just sort of waiting around (looking for trouble, I call it) and doing the Eye Search is when she typically doesn't hear me when I try to get her attention... Isn't that weird??

BTW, I got her to jump through my arms this past Sunday!

summerinbrooklyn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LCK said...

Wow! I would've loved to have seen that.
You know, I don't have trouble with the occasional, out-of-nowhere "No!" I just don't think it should be part of the normal training protocol. And not everyone can shift gears and say, "Good doggie!" with enough force and enthusiasm when they see their dog going after garbage, etc.
And no, it's not bad that you're still working with corrections. I mean it would be great if eventually you didn't have to use them at all. But from your description of when they're "necessary," these seem to be situations where you're not making yourself as relevant to her prey drive as the things in the environment are. You probably just need to work more on that (not that you haven't already worked on it an awful lot).
Also, praise means verbal praise only. It doesn't include physical contact, petting, etc. There's a time and a place for that, but you shouldn't confuse the two.


summerinbrooklyn said...

HEy Lee, Thanks for your comment! You know, I started thinking about it more today, and really paid attention to what I've been saying more, and I realize I use the command Leave It when I need to get her to, basically, Leave It and pay attention to me. I always thought if I pat her side while praising, I would ellicit more of the group feeling with her... I DEFINITELY need to make myself more relevant to her prey drive, you're right. Since her ball drive isn't as high as I would like it, I'll start working more on playing tug with her. Thank you again!!!

Oh another thing, I realize when I get lazy and don't work on the obedience exercises with her at night, I think she gets bored and starts "looking for trouble". I'll start working with her more. I think somehow the exercises make her engaged... I'll see if I can't make myself more "prey-like" during our exercises so that obedience training will fulfill that need in her...

Isn't that just the best thing about thinking about training using drive? That you can tailor something as rigid as a Sit/Stay and Recall from 100 yards away to an exercise that utilizes your dog's natural need to express her drive... I love this stuff!! I'll start thinking of ways to work it into our training...

Melissa said...


Thanks for your post. I haven't read any of your books.. but I did order some on Amazon this week! I am looking forward to reading them.

I have a possibly stupid question. When I was reading this post, a question came to mind. Could praising them when they are doing something undesirable possibly just be a way of "tricking" them out of whatever they are doing. At times I have intentionally tried to distract my dog from something (like a squirrel overhead in the tree) by acting crazy and praising him and then running away so that he will follow me back into the house. In my mind, I was just "playing him". Is the praising really anything more than this? Keep in mind I haven't read Kevin's book yet either.. so I might be missing the point.

The main reason I am asking is because I am afraid that praising my dog when he is doing something undesirable - like ummm.. eating his own poo, which he tries to do right after he goes (sorry if this grosses anyone out!) will only reinforce the very thing I don't want him to do. If I try to distract him away from it, he might come to me, but that doesn't seem to deter him for long. He's right back looking for it. And he always eats it if I am not around. Is this a method I should use for this problem? Or do you have another suggestion? I have tried all sorts of things already: high-quality food; additives in his food; throwing a treat away from the stool and cleaning it up immediately; and as I have said earlier - trying to call him away from it with a treat or toy.

LCK said...

Hi, Melissa,
Sorry. I just saw this question.
How old is your dog?
Praise always works best when you totally commit to it, no hidden intentions. Dogs can sense that, so it's best if you have some "acting" experience!
I hope this helps.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your reply.

My dog is now 1 1/2 years old. I have had him since he was 8 months, and according to his previous owner, this has been a problem since he was little. Since posting, I have tried another additive, which seems to work about 50% of the time. I learned that I have to allow him to try to eat it - that was difficult. But once he had the option to eat or not eat, he started eating it less and less. And I found that if I am standing near him, he will always eat it - even if I am praising him enthusiastically. It's weird but he seems to leave it more often if I am not around (it's like he sees me as competition for it - uh, no thanks!) So I tend to hurry away when he's about to go, saying "Good Peanut! Good go poo!" and then if he turns to eat it I run in the house and shut the door. More often than not, he will come running to the door - which I open immediately and then praise him profusely. It's a complicated little dance..

Since starting this "dance", I find abandoned poo in the yard more and more now. (I have a feeling I might be the only person who gets excited to see dried poo piles in the yard ;-) Maybe one day he won't even turn to sniff it!

Jen Higgins said...

Hi Melissa,

I know this is a late reply, but I wanted to shed some light on why a dog eats it's own faeces.

Dog's essentially eat to fulfil nutritional requirements, if what they are eating does not release enough nutrients as it passes through his digestive system -what comes out the other end is essentially all those nutrient enriched food in a conveniently packaged form :)

This goes for any faeces that a dog finds himself attracted to. So perhaps instead of people addressing this as a behavioural issue and looking at it from a nourishment problem it will become easier to deal with.


Thanks for your great blog - I am just getting into Natural Dog Training - Kevin's book just blows me away!

I was dealing with a resource guarding problem this morning, thinking that how do I stop resource guarding with out resource guarding myself. So while one of my dogs was busy keeping the cat away from the cat's breakfast, I picked up the dog's favourite blue bouncy ball and walked away bouncing. That was enough to get her to follow me and the cat to get his breakfast :)



LCK said...

That's great, Jen. It cracks me up, too, because dogs are in many ways so predictable if you just know what buttons to push.

I got an e-mail this morning from someone who's been avidly reading the Top Ten List on my website. Here's what he wrote:

"It’s funny, but just as I was reading Myth No. 9-- 'Praise Is Only a Secondary Reinforcer,' our dog, Lenny, stole the newspaper and started chewing it. My wife was in the process of trying to 'claim' it, make him drop it, and, mainly, get it away from him. I ran upstairs and said (much to my wife's dismay) 'Good boy, Lenny!, what have you got?'

"He immediately dropped the paper, we played for a minute, then he went up on the couch (which we allow), and quickly fell asleep.

"My wife, even after I’d read her your logic, thinks that praise, especially using the words 'good boy' iis somehow not right. But I think I'll try it out for awhile. After all, as I told her, praising the dog -- especially if he does the right thing -- is not going to ruin him."


Anonymous said...


I am struggling over your analysis over the telephone = play scenario. You broke it down into punishing with praise, which I can follow because the barking behavior did stop (=punishment).

But, couldn't it also be said that you turned the phone ringing into a cue for an alternative behavior?

LCK said...

Yes, that's exactly what I did.

But how (or why) did it work? That's the question.


Rachel said...

So theoretically, if I want my puppy to stop jumping up on the baby gate, and chewing pillow cushions and the pad beneath the rug, I should praise him lavishly whenever I see him doing these things? And, I assume, give him a chew toy or something else to play with(?)

I'm willing to give it a try. Is that really the take-home here?

LCK said...

That's not exactly the "take-away," no. The point I'm making is that both praise and shouting "No!" serve the same function: they interrupt a behavior as it's happening. Praise, when it works, doesn't carry the negative side effect of making the puppy scared of you.

Also, I don't know how old your puppy is and how he'd react to being praised in the situations you mention.

However, it wouldn't hurt to try it.

Here's a link to how your praise should sound:

Best of luck,


Anonymous said...

"From a behavioristic, or learning theory, point of view I taught Erin to use praise as an aversive stimulus to negatively reinforce Mack’s barking at the phone. In other words, I used praise to punish him for barking!"

"negative reinforcement" IS, REINFORCEMENT (increases liklihood of a behavior in the future) by removing an applied aversive stimulus when the subject exhibits the desired behavior. It appears you positively punished the dog with praise. n'est ce pas? How did these dogs respond to the use of praise as a positive stimulus in the future - after this conditioning?

LCK said...

There was no conditioning; that's my point. Something else was going on that can't be explained via learning theory.

As for how they responded to praise afterwards, the answer is simple: they responding in exactly the same way they responded to it before. When praise was used to reinforce the behavior the dogs were happy to repeat the behavior on cue. When it was used to extinguish the behavior, the dogs were happy to stop doing that specific behavior.

It all depended on the context.